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Mr. Feinberg: Meet the People

The fact that I, as a citizen of this country, currently have fewer rights than my cats do makes me wonder.

Jo Rittenhouse

Tuesday, March 12 2002, 10:45 AM

Years ago, my mother told me that she had a few great ideas for getting my girlfriend into the country to stay. Every single one of them were illegal. "But you're an attorney!" I naively retorted. "How can you advocate something illegal. We're going to do this right. We're not going to risk getting her deported on a technicality."

That conversation is haunting me today.

On September 11, 2001, I, along with my partner and a close friend of ours, sat in our living room and watched in stunned silence as one by one, the towers in New York came tumbling down.

Nowadays, everyone tells this story, and I'm not going to get into it now. Except to say that on the day itself, I was emotionally prepared to send the money that was then earmarked for AIDS Walk Los Angeles, to New York City to help with the rebuilding effort.

In the days following, it turned out I wasn't alone in that regard. Everyone sent money to New York. Money poured into the Red Cross 9/11 Fund, so much in fact that after a few days, we started hearing from the Red Cross phrases like "please donate to the General Fund so we can use the money where it's most needed." Star power showed up and telethons were thrown together on no notice. Money raised entered the millions of dollars range in days. Even congress got into the act, creating the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, to be administered by the Department of Justice.

Funny thing, congress. Its members are supposed to represent us. They sure make a big deal about that when election time rolls around. But when they don't need my vote, congress-critters sure don't seem to care much what I think. Mostly, I've grown used to this. I mean I voted for Barbara Lee: I saw what happened to her when she represented me fairly and accurately six months ago.

Imagine my surprise, however, upon discovering that I can still be surprised! Case in point: Kenneth Feinberg, the DOJ official in charge of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund showed up on "Meet the Press" and said:

[Gays and lesbians are] left out of my program to the extent that their own state doesn't include them. I cannot get into a position in this program, which has a one-and-a-half or two-year life start second-guessing what the state of New York or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or the state of Virginia or New Jersey, how they treat same-sex partners, domestic live-ins, etc. I simply say this: What does your state law say about who is eligible? If your state law makes you eligible, I will honor state law. If it doesn't, I go with the state. Otherwise, Tim, I would find myself getting sued in every state by people claiming that I'm not following how the state distributes money. I can't get into that local battle. I've got to rely on state law.
— Kenneth Feinberg on NBC's "Meet the Press," March 10, 2002.

Fine. So far, no surprise. But guess what?

According to Feinberg, lots and lots of people will receive compensation under the plan, including children, babies, and even fetuses. And as an indication of how generous the fund will be, even illegal aliens, who aren't American citizens and who are in the US in violation of federal law, will receive benefits. Feinberg even says that the Attorney General has promised that if undocumented aliens come forward, they won't be kicked out of the country, and their employers won't be penalized. "The attorney general, in consultation with Immigration, etc., undocumented aliens who come forward, the families will not suffer any consequences. They are covered by this program. They will get a check. The employer, where we need the economic information about the undocumented alien, will not be penalized," Feinberg told "Meet the Press.

I was perfectly prepared for him to say that his fund wasn't going to give money to gays and lesbians. Why should his fund be different than most funds of that sort anyway? What I wasn't prepared for was the discovery that I, a citizen of the United States, was being declared to have fewer rights than an illegal alien. We have a government that is willing, on behalf of a Victim's Compensation Fund, to break FEDERAL law, but not various state laws. In fact, the government is willing to break the very law it is irrationally enforcing against legal aliens who have slight VISA irregularities, but they won't give benefits to gays and lesbians because they might be sued?

Think about it. I am currently working part time and am covered on my partner's benefits plan. She picks up the freight on not only our home and our utilities, but also food, most entertainment and travel expenses and our health insurance, which includes medical, vision, and dental. I'm responsible for personal mad money and my own outstanding credit card debts. Period. If my partner had been in The Pentagon that morning, or in Two WTC, or on board that plane that crashed outside Pittsburgh, I would have no resources, AND NO RIGHTS. I'd get her life insurance, because we're careful about things like that. And once I'd paid for her burial (such as it might be), I'd be stuck because I wouldn't be eligible for most of the funds giving out money right now. Not social security survivor benefits, perhaps not Red Cross benefits, and clearly, not September 11 Victim Compensation Fund benefits.

But if I were an illegal alien, I could claim benefits based on the death of my (presumably also illegal alien) spouse with no consequences for anyone, including the employer doing the illegal employing. Oh, except for the consequence of receipt of a check.

And that check I almost sent to the 9/11 fund all those months ago? I didn't, and today I'm suddenly no longer even remotely torn about that. I sure hope the recipients of the AIDS Walk Los Angeles funds are doing good things with that money.

I do believe that everyone who was damaged by 9/11 deserves assistance: man, woman, child, cat and dog. It's the fact that I, as a citizen of this country, currently have fewer rights than my cats do that makes me wonder. When I catch up, I'll send my money to a 9/11 fund near me.

(Quotes taken from John Aravosis, "9/11 Fund to Discriminate Against Gays" at

Jo Rittenhouse is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.

Copyright © 2002 by Jo Rittenhouse. All rights reserved.